Game-changing Funding Plan for BC Search & Rescue

Jun 18, 2019

Six years in the making, the recently announced funding plan for the 80 ground search and rescue groups represented by the BC Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) may well become the standard by which volunteer SAR service funding is measured across Canada.

With the announcement of an “immediate injection of $18.6 million [in] sustainable long term funding,” Mike Farnworth, British Columbia Minister for Public Safety and Solicitor General, made a lot of friends across the province. To be distributed over the next three years to the many volunteer groups, this announcement is a game changer that will also provide critical funding to support the “created in BC” prevention program, AdventureSmart, as well as to BCSARA’s Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Program, which provides peer-based mental health support.

Jim McAllister, the BCSARA Director who led the funding initiative, says, “Over the past 3 years one-time grants allowed groups to fill gaps in required equipment and training, and for BCSARA to fully support programs including AdventureSmart and CISM. This new funding announcement paves the way for longer term planning, entrenching supports for the volunteers, and refocusing on other priorities.”

Jim was a volunteer Director on the provincial SAR Advisory Committee in the 1990s before becoming the SAR Specialist for the province. The real challenge for volunteer search groups has been the constant effort find ways to fund the specialized training required, as well as for the purchase and maintenance of equipment. “Developments in safety programs and meeting public expectations required volunteers to spend many hours applying for grants and other fundraising activities”.

Nechako Valley SAR members practice flat ice rescue techniques. (Photo: Chris Mushumanski)

While Marine and Air SAR calls are a federal responsibility, ground search and rescue (GSAR) is a provincial/territorial responsibility – and each jurisdiction handles this responsibility differently.

The Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC) reports that approximately 3000 GSAR tasks are completed annually by volunteer groups. British Columbia GSAR groups respond to 1700 of these and, with the complexity of terrain and climate, large population centres located close to wilderness areas, and a booming tourism industry, it makes sense that the 80 recognized groups responding to these calls need stable annual funding.

Anyone following BCSARA’s social media accounts or reading the weekly incident summary reports from Emerg­ency Management BC (EMBC is the provincial department responsible for SAR), can see the types of calls these SAR groups respond to varies widely.

Volunteers search for a missing mushroom picker in northwest BC. The 2017 case involved 21 different SAR groups across the province. Volunteers continued to search for weeks after the official mission was suspended by the family due to dangerous conditions. (Photo: Chris Mushumanski)

The weekly list of calls is incredible in its diversity, complexity and highlights the need for skilled, well trained and equipped volunteers to respond. Some of the more common examples include: ski, snowshoe or snowmobile enthusiasts in avalanche terrain; tourists near rivers or waterfalls; children with autism who wander away in a provincial park; despondent subjects; the elderly with dementia; canoe and kayakers in swiftwater; dirt bikers or ATVers who become seriously injured; the rancher who didn’t come home after checking his cattle on the range; the hunter who presses their SPOT or InReach SOS button; the mushroom picker who hasn’t been heard from in days, the Indigenous elder who went for a walk near her home and is overdue, the community surrounded by wildfire needing hundreds or thousands of evacuation notices delivered.

Nechako Valley SAR jet boat operators train on the Nechako River. (Photo: Chris Mushumanski)

“Although EMBC provides expense reimbursement for incident responses and covers the basic cost of core training, SAR groups still had to find ways to fund technical training and replace major capital equipment” says Neil Brewer, a long time SAR volunteer with Kent Harrison SAR in Agassiz, east of Chilliwack, BC, and a BCSARA Director at Large for Grants.

Brewer points out that the previous ad hoc funding model was both laborious and inconsistent. While some communities, especially in larger centres, provided some level of financial support, many SAR groups were forced to rely on fundraising events and Gaming Grants from the Province, but were not always successful. Many SAR volunteers each contribute hundreds of hours every year, and so “the expectation that they must also fundraise – as well as being out-of-pocket – is both unrealistic and unsustainable. I don’t do bake sales anymore!” exclaims Brewer.
Brewer has been a strong advocate for the SAR community for years, helping many groups with writing effective grant applications over the years. “Without [grants], SAR would not be where it is today, not even close,” he describes.

Neil was the architect of the distribution formula BCSARA’s proposal to government for sustainable funding. Called the Alternative Support Model, countless hours went into the process of establishing an equitable and effective model to distribute funding to the 80 diverse groups.
As volunteer organizations, each GSAR group in BC has its own unique history. Some of the oldest groups started in the years after World War Two as part of Civil Defence initiatives; others were formed by hiking groups after being repeatedly asked by the RCMP to search for yet another missing hiker; still others were community minded, outdoorsy individuals coming together to serve a need. At one time there were more than 120 groups across the province, today that number is at 80. With training and certification requirements being some of the highest in the world, it is an incredibly dedicated volunteer who can dedicate the hundreds of hours each year to SAR.

Swiftwater techs from Prince George SAR and Nechako Valley SAR train on the Willow River east of Prince George. (Photo: Chris Mushumanski)

Tragedy struck in 2011, when Sheilah Sweatman, a swiftwater tech with Nelson Search and Rescue, died during a SAR task. Sheilah’s death shook the SAR community across BC to the core. Jim McAllister remembers, “The impact of her death crossed all boundaries and touched everyone, we will never forget.” The coroner’s inquest made nine recommendations, including that “EMBC review and evaluate funding models to better support SAR operations, training and equipment.” This prompted a lot of dialogue and eventual  change in the SAR community. “Even before the inquest was held, Emergency Management B.C. and BCSARA came together to review the standards for Swiftwater Rescue and formed a joint health and safety committee,” reflects Jim, “the inquest report added further impetus for adequate and sustainable funding through the detailed proposal to the Province.”

By 2013, budgets for training alone were stretched to the breaking point and call volumes continued to go up. “SAR prevention has always been a passion of mine,” says Sandra Riches, Executive Director for AdventureSmart. “Fifteen years ago, BCSARA started an outreach program with plans to educate outdoor enthusiasts. Little did we know it would grow into an internationally sought-after program while making such a difference in BC.”

Along with the need to educate the public and try and decrease the number and severity of SAR calls, groups were dealing with new requirements for training, re-certification, expensive equipment, to go along with insurance and licensing requirements, and volunteers across the province were spending thousands of hours writing grants and fundraising to pay for all of this.

(Photo: Courtesy of BCSARA)

Something needed to change. Begun by McAllister and Brewer, a funding model was researched and developed to help the groups and volunteers deal with the need for annual, predictable funding for the ongoing costs SAR groups face based on their capabilities, size of membership and equipment already owned.

BC groups are recognized by EMBC based on their capabilities like GSAR at different levels, swiftwater, avalanche, rope rescue, search dog, tracking, flat ice, tracking, helicopter winch and fixed-line rescue, advanced First Aid, and more. Each of these capabilities has different levels of need, along with training and equipment requirements costs hundreds or thousands per volunteer, and for some they need to re-certify every 1 to 3 years. “To think that prior to 2016, volunteers gave a couple hundred thousand hours annually to training and respond to calls, and then had to write grants and fundraise to pay for this training, equipment and organizational costs, is astounding,” says Brewer, “and yet the SAR community did it. Crazy!”

While operational costs such as mileage and meal reimbursements and operational response amounts have been in place for many years, predictable funding for training and equipment did not show up until 2016 when the Province announced a one-time grant of $10 million (later increased by another $5 million).

Bulkey Valley SAR and Nechako Valley SAR member search for a missing man in the Morice River. (Photo: Chris Mushumanski)

BCSARA used the Alternative Support Model to distribute those funds to the groups over three years – which was the first time these groups had predictable funding beyond a year.

“This was huge for my SAR group in Vanderhoof, never before had we been able to plan beyond a year funding wise,” says Chris Walker, Nechako Valley SAR Vice-President based in Vanderhoof BC. “There were some early years in our group where members paid the insurance on our old mobile command centre and waited months to be paid back when the group found funds. I think people sometimes don’t appreciate how important longer term planning is, never mind the time spent fundraising and writing grants that may or may not pay.”

While many were caught up in the excitement of the number $18.6 million, the commitment to a sustainable funding model is what others point to as the important piece. “The most exciting news is that the minister has announced a commitment to move to a sustainable funding model well before the end of this 3 year grant,” says BCSARA President Chris Kelly. “This really is what the SAR community needs and has worked so hard for over the past 6 years.”

Time to go home after a long, cold, wet day of training. (Photo courtesy of BCSARA)

“Now the work begins,” Jim muses as he answers yet another email. “BCSARA was optimistic there would be an announcement as current funding ran out, and knew there would be work to be done regardless of what was announced. The best part to this announcement is the work needed to be done is in line with seeing a stable funding model in place, and BCSARA is committed to seeing this happen in the next year. So many of the needs of the SAR community were met with this announcement, from funding for SAR prevention with AdventureSmart and our CISM program, to funding some staffing at BCSARA to help with training and safety requirements, and then EMBC committing to hiring 2 more staff to help on the government’s side, there is so much good news here!”  
Chris Mushumanski is the Public Information Officer and Secretary with BCSARA, and is a volunteer with Nechako Valley SAR in Vanderhoof BC.